The Romantic Imagination of Newt Gingrich

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Gingrich's dreams of moon colonization illuminate what his fans find so appealing about him -- and what drives his critics crazy.

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Extolling the virtues of a colony on the moon in Florida Wednesday, Newt Gingrich's fundamental reasoning wasn't that it it would lead to scientific advances, or even that it would just be cool. It was, he said, a romantic idea.

"I come at space from a standpoint of a romantic belief that it really is part of our destiny," Gingrich said. "The reason you have to have a bold and large vision is you don't arouse the American nation with trivial, bureaucratic, rational objectives."

Flash back to 1990, when Gingrich, then the House Republican whip, was on a crusade against then-President George H.W. Bush's budget chief, Richard Darman.

Darman, Gingrich contended, was a "technocrat" who couldn't understand "the great romantic vision of being American."

In a 1992 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Gingrich called himself "a utopian romantic idealist." In a motivational tape for would-be candidates put out by GOPAC around that time, he counseled, "You bear the romantic, idealistic, moral burden of literally being the carriers of the future of the human race and the carriers of freedom both for America and for every child on the planet."

For as long as Gingrich has been in politics, he has been describing himself as a romantic. It is of a piece with his self-proclaimed "grandiosity," the combination of self-absorption and sentimentality that has long defined Gingrich's temperament and rhetoric. Americans, he believes, are romantic at their core -- dreamers, idealists, myth-makers.

"Imagine that Isabella had said to Columbus, 'You know, we just can't afford it this year. I don't think you ought to discover America,'" Gingrich said in a 1993 floor speech defending the space station from cuts. "Imagine, if my colleagues will, that the Wright brothers had said, 'You know, we can't get that train ticket all the way to Kitty Hawk. What the heck. We don't need an airplane.'" It was, the Hartford Courant noted at the time, a debate that "pitted the romantics and the poets... against the accountants."

Gingrich's new comments on space exploration have ignited such a firestorm not just because they are unusual -- though they are certainly that -- but because they point to the essential Newt, simultaneously sublime and ridiculous.

On the one hand, his romanticism helps explain Gingrich's appeal: Voters, Americans especially, are always drawn to politicians who project idealism and give them something to believe in. (See also: Obama, Barack.) On the other hand, his childlike pretension to the world-historical stage is the trait in Gingrich that so maddens his critics, who insist that politics must be a practical and sensible business. He doesn't care how much it costs. He just wants to go to the moon.

"Idealism is American," Gingrich said in April 1995, in a speech wrapping up the first 100 days of the new GOP majority and its idealistic Contract With America. "To be romantic is American. It's OK to be a skeptic, but don't be a cynic." It was the first time the speaker of the House had ever presumed to give a presidential-style prime-time television address.

In his book To Renew America, published a few months later, Gingrich wrote: "America is a series of romantic folk-tales that just happen to be true."

In an October 1995 speech, he described what he was trying to accomplish as "a cultural revolution." It was, he said, "a very idealistic, romantic idea. It makes us -- interestingly, I think -- probably the least cynical group to lead Washington in modern times."

At a press conference upon assuming the speakership in January 1995, Gingrich nearly got choked up reflecting on "the sense of being part of history and part of the romantic myth of this country." The following exchange then occurred:

REPORTER: How soon do you expect the romantic myth to -- how long do you expect it to last?

Rep. GINGRICH: It's lasted over 200 years. I think it'll probably go for another couple of centuries. I don't know.

REPORTER: You don't anticipate it being shattered in any particular way --

Rep. GINGRICH: I think it's getting scratched up on a regular basis every day by all of us. But America as a myth rises above, you know, any of our weaknesses.

Gingrich's fortunes have fallen and risen (and fallen and risen) since those days, but it's abundantly clear that his basic sensibility hasn't changed. As he said in Florida on Wednesday: "it's exciting and it's dynamic, and who knows what next week is going to be like? Does that mean I'm a visionary? You betcha."

Those who made the journey with him then know exactly how appealing Gingrich's spiel can be; they've also seen the flip side, which is why they're now coming out of the woodwork to warn about the inevitable crash.

Bob Dole, for example, issued a statement on Thursday recalling the bad old days, when Gingrich's unpopularity was a drag on Dole's candidacy: "In my run for the presidency in 1996 the Democrats greeted me with a number of negative TV ads, and in every one of them Newt was in the ad," wrote Dole, who supports Mitt Romney.

In 1995, Dole reflected on Gingrich to The New York Times thusly: "Sometimes I kind of wonder: 'Well, jiminy, why can't I think like this guy? Is there something wrong with me?' Then I think, 'Well, maybe not."'

Image credit: Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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